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Number of foreign visitors to China in 2023 down more than 60% from pre-pandemic levels

It has been a year since China reopened its borders, but despite loosening its stringent Covid-19 restrictions, foreign travelers have been slow to return to the country with numbers down more than 60% from pre-pandemic levels.

China’s border authorities recorded 35.5 million entries and exits by foreign nationals in 2023, according to the National Immigration Administration. That’s nearly seven times more than the number from 2022, when the country was deep in its three-year self-imposed Covid isolation.

The 2023 figure is just 36% of the 97.7 million border entries and exits by foreign nationals recorded in 2019, suggesting a long road to full recovery, though momentum picked up toward the end of the year.

More than half of the border crossings made by foreign travelers in 2023 were recorded in the last three months of the year, according to data from the National Immigration Administration.

Meanwhile, the number of foreign nationals residing in China has rebounded to 85% of the level it was at the end of 2019, Zhang Ning, a spokeswoman for the administration, said at a news briefing Thursday.

Chinese authorities issued a total of 711,000 residency permits to foreign nationals in 2023, Zhang added.

The latest figures come amid a flurry of attempts by Beijing to lure back foreign tourists and visitors as it seeks ways to boost a sluggish economy.

This week, China agreed to grant unilateral visa-free entry to citizens of Switzerland and Ireland, after Chinese Premier Li Qiang visited both countries as part of his European trip to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos.

The announcements add to a series of visa-free treatments China has offered to European and Asian countries over the past months, in a bid to boost weak consumption and business ties.

In November, Beijing announced a trial program to allow visitors from France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Malaysia to enter visa-free for 15 days. The policy, which started in December, is set to last 12 months till the end of November this year.

In December, 118,000 travelers from those six nations entered China without a visa under the new policy, according to the National Immigration Administration, which did not provide a breakdown by country.

Over 77% of them were visiting for sightseeing, leisure or business activities, the administration said.

The efforts to woo more international travelers have continued in the new year.

In early January, Thailand said it had struck a reciprocal agreement with China to permanently wave visa requirements for each other’s citizens from March.

China has also made it easier for American tourists to visit by simplifying the visa application process.

From January 1, travelers from the United States no longer need to submit proof of round-trip air tickets, hotel reservations, their itinerary or an invitation letter to apply for a tourist visa, according to the Chinese Embassy in the United States.

China ramped up measures to make it easier for international travelers to visit the country in the second half of 2023, following the slow return of visitors in the earlier months.

In August, it dropped all pre-entry Covid-19 test requirements for inbound passengers, offered business travelers the option to get visas on arrival and exempted visitors from some countries from fingerprint collection.

Last summer, WeChat and Alipay, China’s two biggest payment apps that have come to dominate everyday life, finally allowed visitors to link their foreign credit cards, enabling them to book taxis, ride the subway and pay for restaurants, hotels and shops across the near-cashless country.